Is Your Compost Made of Sewage Sludge?

Biosolids in CompostThe Dirty Truth About Biosolids

By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

Compost is rightly celebrated as the perfect soil amendment and a great way to recycle green waste. But not all compost is created equal. In fact, commercial compost based on “biosolids” or sewage sludge can be downright dangerous.

You know what biosolids are, right? Solids made from bio materials, just what the term suggests. One can’t help but think of Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except biosolids don’t smell so sweet. And what’s in this name is otherwise known as shit.

Truth is, “biosolids” is a marketing term, a euphemism for sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is what remains of everything flushed down the sewers — human and animal feces, industrial chemicals, medical waste, oil products, pesticides, home cleaners — after the water is removed. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s okay to call “biosolids” compost. The marketers who came up with the term biosolids (they did it by holding a contest) want you to think of it as natural. To that end, they’ve invested a ton of resources.

What’s wrong with using compost made from sewage in your garden? After all, it’s been treated and tested right? Guess again. Allowing sewage to “cure” for a period of time does not remove its toxins. Heavy metals, including lead and mercury, as well as such industrial compounds as flame retardants persist, even concentrate, during the cure (some biosolids are treated to remove a small number of heavy metals). Compost may be heat-treated to kill some pathogens. But heat treating doesn’t kill them all. And how do you know the compost was treated in the first place?

The biosolids-are-sewage-sludge secret is one that commercial compost marketers, some city waste disposal utilities, the EPA and even some environmental interest groups work hard to keep. Large amounts of money in the form of expensive public relations campaigns have been spent to make you think that spreading sewage on commercial food crops and your own garden is okay. But of course, it isn’t.

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Sludge, the kind that ends up in a number of brands of commercial and municipal compost, the kind spread on farm crops, is the end product of sewage treatment, the process by which everything flushed, poured and dumped into the sewage system by home dwellers, businesses and industry is separated into liquid and solid components. The goal is to treat the liquid so that it is “clean” water ready for reintroduction into the environment. All the bad stuff, the toxins, pathogens, chemicals, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and poisons, settle out with the sludge. What to do with all that sludge is the problem. Using it to make compost, selling it to gardeners and spreading it on agricultural land — despite all the contaminants–is the cynical and dangerous answer.

Horror stories about biosolids abound. In 1979, a dairy farmer in Georgia began to lose his milk cows after he started applying locally produced sludge fertilizer to his fields. Eventually, 700 of them died. The EPA refused to test his field so the farmer hired out to have it done. The result? The fields contained high levels of thallium, a toxic metal that is the active ingredient in rat poison. It turned out that a nearby factory used the chemical in its production of NutraSweet and flushed the residues down the drain. Thallium was later detected in local supplies of milk at levels more than 11 times above the legal limit for drinking water. When the farmer sued the Federal Government for disaster relief, a judge found that, according to Mother Jones magazine, “senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of the EPA’s biosolids program.”

Why would the EPA fight the truth? Because the recycling of sewage sludge is big business. It’s estimated that half the sewage sludge generated in the United States ends up on farm land and backyard gardens. In 2007, the infamous Carlyle Group, an investment consortium known for its armaments speculation, bought the sludge recycling company Synagro for $772 million. Synagro, object of a recent CBS television broadcast of “Undercover Boss,” is the largest processor of sewage sludge in the country. Investors see sludge as a guaranteed growth business. Municipalities, saddled with the responsibility of what to do with all that sludge, see composting as a gift from on high.

Even Michelle Obama’s celebrated White House garden used sludge-based compost, something that precludes its claims to be organic (the U.S. Department of Agriculture says any food crops grown with sludge-based amendments is not organic; on the other hand the EPA does not regulate the labeling of compost so that manufacturers may call it anything, including organic). While the EPA has given the use of sewage sludge its blessing some of its own scientists disagree that it’s safe. And for good reason.

When you spread sludge on farmland or use a bag of compost you bought at a nursery or home-and-garden supply that’s made with sludge, you’re also spreading contaminants. Some one-thousand contaminants have been identified in sewage sludge, a short list of which includes lead, mercury and dozens of other metals, flame retardants, steroids, organochlorine pesticides, plasticizers, hormones and antibiotics. A 2009 nation-wide EPA study found that all samples of sludge tested contained various contaminants in varying amounts (you can get a more complete list of the contaminants here).

The problem is you may not even know that the compost you buy contains sludge. Since 2003, the EPA has allowed marketers to substitute the word “compost” for sewage sludge (or biosolids) on ingredient lists. The fact that some sludge is allowed to cure before it is used or treated to remove a handful of the thousands of contaminants it contains, does not make it safe. More amazing is the fact that some makers of compost that include sewage use the word “organic” in their marketing.

The struggle to inform the public on the dangers of biosolids pits small gardeners and environmental activists against some high-profit industries, handsomely-paid public relations firms and some of the country’s largest municipal governments. It’s a battle between those who want to green wash the product by depicting sludge as beneficial recycling and those warning that sewage sludge, the basis for several brands of commercial compost, is a toxic mix of lead, dioxin, asbestos, concentrated pesticides and numerous heavy metals and pathogens.

How did we get here? For years, sludge was dumped off shore (first 12 miles, later over 100) or in landfills. Leakage into water tables was common. Then the EPA discovered that fish and shellfish off New York’s coast where sludge was dumped were contaminated, the waters contained unusual amounts of pathogens and the sea bed contained unusually high levels of toxic metals and inorganic compounds. In 1988, Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Ban, which went into effect in 1992.

That same year, the drive to legitimize dumping sludge on farm land went into full swing. Municipalities began selling or giving away sludge to farmers and makers of commercial compost. The effort to disguise the risks of this “fertilizer” reached epic proportions and involved local governments, the EPA, agricultural interests, the waste-removal industry, high-powered public relations firms and celebrities. The effort so characterized the dishonesty of labels in the American marketplace that it inspired a 2002 book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies And the Public Relations Industry.

There’s lots of money to be made from government programs as well as unsuspecting gardeners while providing our largest cities a solution to one of their biggest problems: where to get rid of all that shit. That’s why marketing biosolids seems an easy sell. It takes care of one environmental problem by employing a wise-use recycling. But how wise is it to recycles contaminants into our soil?

Here’s how one county and its sewage reclamation partner describe biosolids, the “organic matter drawn from the clean water treatment process.” “Biosolids compost-enriched soil conserves water, reduces soil erosion, alleviates soil compaction, improves soil texture and reintroduces important nutrients back into depleted soils so that plants and trees can thrive in a nutrient-rich environment.” Sounds good, right? Not a word about feces and contaminants.

Cities have been especially insidious pushing sludge as compost. San Francisco suspended its compost giveaways and stopped labeling its sludge-based amendment as organic after protestors wearing Hazmat suits and respirators dumped toxic sludge on the steps of City Hall to call attention to the dangers of sewage based compost. (The city continues to produce and use the product.)

In Los Angeles, television producer Norman Lear’s “Environmental Media Association,” a group whose stated mission is “…to influence the environmental awareness of millions of people… EMA mobilizes the entertainment industry in educating people about environmental issues, which in turn, inspires them to take action” seemed an unlikely organization to push sludge sold as compost. But that’s what they’ve done.

In 2009, EMA with a corporate partner who manufactured compost from sludge, began contributing to the LA School District’s organic gardening program. A number of young celebrities became involved to publicize what seemed a worthy endeavor: teaching students to establish and maintain organic gardens. By using the corporate partner’s compost — compost made from sewage sludge — the gardens were not what they were presented to be.

In 2011, The Foods Rights Network wrote to EMA (PDF) asking them to quit their relationship with the compost maker while characterizing their efforts as an attempt to green wash a product that was not organic and indeed possibly dangerous. EMA has so far denied the green washing charges and refused to sever ties with the compost maker. But the reputation of the EMA which has included stars the likes of Ed Begely, Jr. and Daryl Hannah on its board of directors has suffered because of their obvious hypocrisy.

At first glance, it may seem that recycling sewage sludge as compost is a wise and wonderful solution for a growing problem. After all, something has to be done with all that waste. And compost, as we all know, is a wonderful addition to our gardens. But disguising toxins and pathogen-rich sewage sludge as compost is at once deceitful and bordering on criminal. Spreading sewage sludge on our lands is postponing and at worst, redirecting a serious contamination problem. How will we get rid of all that sewage if it’s not used as compost?

The answer may lie in energy conversion. Already projects are underway to extract methane from sewage and use it to power our cities. But the huge infrastructure required to do this, despite its obvious returns and economic benefits, seems a long way off. Even if sewage is utilized as energy, there’ll still be toxins to dispose of. In a political climate that resists even the repair of bridges, investment that would eventually solve a serious world-wide pollution problem while supplying needed energy, may be nothing but a pipe dream.

What to do? First, beware of any commercial compost you buy. Commercial compost has a number of problems, the possible inclusion of sewage byproducts being the foremost. Making your own compost — controlling what goes into your composter and composting piles — is the best way to safeguard your soil and family. Short of that, use only compost from trusted local producers, preferably from organic farms. Or buy organic soil that is certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

In the meantime, the spread of sewage sludge on America’s gardens and farmland continues. For your family’s safety and the integrity of the environment, don’t unknowingly be part of it.

Sources, resources:

Sludge News
Toxic Sludge
Food Rights Network
Water Environment Federation (WEF)
Synagro Technologies

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